“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” – Edward Abbey
Last year on AMC’s Breaking Bad, during episode 506: “Buyout,” Walter White has a conversation with his partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman. Jesse is trying to convince Walt to retire from their illegal meth operation. They have an offer on the table to sell their supply of methylamine to a rival organization for $5-million each. It’s more money than either of them ever imagined they’d make when they began, and more than enough to comfortably set them up for life. Walt rejects Jesse’s plea to take the deal and drop out of the business by telling a story about his past, the content of which spells out Walt’s true motivation and illuminates the thesis of the show.
He explains that back in grad-school he co-founded a company with two friends, Gray Matter. Walt even came up with the name, but he took a buyout before it became profitable because of an affair with one of the other co-founders. The amount he took: $5,000. He tells Jesse that today the company is worth billions and that he looks up its value every week, knowing that he could have been immensely wealthy had he not sold his stake in the business. Walt scoffs at the measly $5-million buyout Jesse is advocating. “I’m in the empire business,” he proclaims.
Though it may have taken five seasons for Walt to clearly and honestly express his motivation to another character, the audience should have already had a pretty good idea of what motivates him. It’s amazing how many seeds of who Walter White would later become were planted in the very first episode.
At the beginning of the series, Walter White is an overqualified, middle-aged high school chemistry teacher. He has a teenage son with cerebral palsy, Walter Jr., and is in a relatively stable marriage with Skyler, who is pregnant with an unplanned baby. They live in a modest house, but are having trouble making ends meet. Their rusting water heater leaks and turns their water brown, Skyler lectures Walt about using the wrong credit card at Staples, the glove box in his car is broken and won’t stay shut, and in order to make some extra cash he works a part-time job at a car wash after school. Though hired to work the register, his boss forces him to wash cars outside, where he’s humiliated by one of his students (who drives a much more expensive car than Walt does). At home his sex life appears to be passionless; Skyler seems more involved in selling their household items on Ebay than sharing an intimate moment in the bedroom, and Walt has trouble getting “inspired” anyway. To make matters worse, Walt has a loudmouth, alpha-male brother-in-law, Hank, who has a flashy job as a DEA agent, which is infinitely more impressive to Walt Jr. than his gig as a chemistry teacher.
Right away, we can see that Walter is a 50 year old man whose life didn’t turn out how he envisioned. He feels beaten down, stretched thin, passed over, cheated, emasculated, exploited, unfulfilled, and even his great talent, chemistry, falls on the deaf ears of his students who couldn’t care less. And then the cancer hits.
But even before his diagnosis he felt like a failure, unable to adequately provide for his family, or, more specifically, to fulfill the role expected of a man in this society. Learning that his life will be unexpectedly cut short, coupled with the knowledge that he’s going to leave his family bankrupt, is the final slap in the face, the last humiliating insult life can dish out.
When Walt partners up with Jesse, one of his former students, to make meth, his stated motivation is his family. He says that before he dies he wants to be able to take care of his loved ones. Practical things, mostly. He wants Skyler to be able to pay off the mortgage, to cover college educations for his children, and medical bills for the whole family. At one point early on he even calculates an exact figure of how much money he needs to make in order to provide the essentials for his family over the next 20 years ($737-thousand), and then he’d quit selling drugs once he reaches that number.
Becoming a meth manufacturer is morally dubious, but even though the audience might disagree with his choice, given the state of Walt’s life, it’s understandable why he would make that decision. At first, anyway. After all, Walt is a victim of the capitalist system. He has been dealt a terrible set of circumstances in a world based on exploitation, and he is virtually powerless to change them by legitimate means. Though he’s still a member of the comparatively better off middle class, the anger he feels about having to scrounge for every dollar while being trapped in an monotonous cycle, his life passing by day by day without any joy or fulfillment, is legitimate, and it’s compounded by the importance placed on the “traditional” patriarchal family unit, as well the pressure and expectation put on men to provide for their families under the capitalist system. A man who can’t isn’t really a man, goes the thinking.
By the end of the first episode Walt has survived his first foray into the dangerous drug underworld, and while it was life threatening, terrifying, and violent, for the first time in years he feels invigorated. He goes home and sleeps with his wife. Skyler, surprised by his sudden sexual advance, asks, “Walt, is that you?!” as she gasps for breath and the credits roll.
And there it is. That’s really what it’s all about for Walt. While he may say that he just wants to support his family before he dies, what he really wants is to finally be a man, a real man, and to get all the privileges that go with that. His family is just the excuse he uses, the lie he tells himself to justify his actions. He wants to shed the image of the nerdy science teacher who can’t take care of his family. He wants authority and power. He wants respect. The tone is set for the rest of the series as Walt seeks revenge against the society that screwed him over, undervalued his worth, and overlooked his potential. From the moment of his diagnosis forward Walt will take what he wants and he will prove to any doubters that he’s man enough for anything, by any horrific means necessary.
Later on, when Walt and Skyler need to buy a business to launder their drug money, Walt is determined to purchase the very same car wash that wounded his pride. He refuses to let the previous owner keep his framed dollar on the wall, and out of spite Walt uses that dollar to buy a soda from the vending machine. It’s clear that Walt is more interested in getting revenge than providing for his family.
Though while Walter was right to feel angry and bitter about the unfortunate hand he’s been dealt, his mistake is that instead of channeling that frustration into exposing and tearing down an unjust system, a system that exploits and oppresses millions around the world, he goes about trying to place himself atop that system of exploitation. He doesn’t want out of the system of oppression, he wants in. He doesn’t care about the plight of other oppressed people, he only cares about his own misfortune, and as a result, while he is attempting to rebel against the capitalist system, he adopts that system’s own ideology, and thus dooms himself to failure. As he said, he’s in the “empire business.” He wants to conquer, to dominate, to bend the world to his will, and enrich himself without limit for the sake of obtaining power, everyone else be damned. His idea of revenge isn’t to bring down capitalism, he wants to become the ultimate capitalist, and in this way, his successful rebellion against the system is just as bad as failure.
The show, in effect, becomes an allegory of capitalist-imperialism, clearly indicting a system that allows a tiny minority to profit off the misery of the vast majority. As Walt delves deeper into the criminal underworld he increasingly sees people as expendable pawns, who he either manipulates to further his interests, or eliminates. Early on, Walt has great difficulty bringing himself to murder, but by the end of season 5, he barely gives it a second thought. Nothing can stand in the way of his growing empire, and being in a position of power numbs his empathy for other human beings.
Walt’s rise to power mirrors the classic capitalist model. In order to survive as a capitalist you must expand or face being overtaken by your competitors. If you don’t ruthlessly expand your business, someone else will, and you lose everything. Likewise, every time Walt is forced to make a choice between backing out or doubling down, he always doubles down. Every time he comes up against someone with more power than he does, instead of retreating he systematically destroys them and takes their place. First Krazy 8, then Tuco, Gus, and finally Mike, until only he is left holding the keys to the kingdom.
It’s also important to note that it’s always other people who pay for Walt’s crimes. He makes a huge profit off of the poor people addicted to his product, with absolutely no regard for the damage done to society. In fact, he thinks of drug addicts in the worst possible terms, as if they’re less than human, even though he’s more than willing to exploit them for his own gain. In his wake, thousands ruin their lives using meth, many people are murdered, and he’s even responsible for a major air disaster. The damage ripples through society while he profits and gains power. It’s a perfect allegory for the way wealth flows from the exploited masses to a tiny elite, and shows how under capitalism, if you’re willing to brutally exploit, oppress, and destroy other people you can achieve a great measure of what’s considered “success.” And Walt is very successful by that standard.
The family is also a major theme in Breaking Bad, and it can’t be overstated how important the concept of the “traditional” patriarchal family is to capitalism. It’s a model that by design teaches individuals to value the well-being of their relatives over those of everyone else in society. This may not seem like a big problem at first glance, but the net result is a society where everyone does what’s best for their family, even if it comes at the expense of everyone else. Society becomes about competition, rather than collaboration, and people often abandon their moral or political principles when faced with a choice that might negatively impact their family. It’s an institution that keeps the masses pacified as individuals become preoccupied with maintaining the well-being of their family unit, preventing the people from uniting to struggle for justice for all, relatives or not.
Walt frequently uses the concept of family as a justification for his actions. “When we do what we do for good reasons, there’s nothing to worry about, and what better reason is there than family?” Walt assures Skyler, who is struggling with the collateral damage inflicted upon her former boss, Ted Beneke. He’s paralyzed while trying to flee from a pair of goons Skyler dispatched to force him to pay off his debt to the IRS, preventing the government from catching on to the Whites’ illegal drug money. Skyler and Walt do what is best for their family, and the result is devastating to other people. Breaking Bad brings this issue to the forefront, and the fact that Walt is so frighteningly at peace with this justification should force the audience to call into question its own morality. How much damage would you be willing to inflict upon society in order to protect your loved ones?
Given the state of the world today, considering where the lines of battle are being drawn in society, it’s possible that Breaking Bad is currently the most politically relevant show on television. America’s capitalist-imperialist empire is beginning to rot from the inside, but before it crumbles the establishment will use all available options to maintain power, brutally suppressing the masses if necessary. Breaking Bad has clearly been an allegory for the moral vacancy of obtaining power through the capitalist system, and it shows the horrific consequences of going down that path. Is it worth it to enrich yourself if you destroy the world in the process? Walter White says ‘yes,’ and his example should be a blueprint for how not to think and for what not to do.
The problem with building an empire is that there’s no end point. There’s always someone else to conquer, more power to be gained. This is where Walt lives now. He built his capitalist empire with brutal violence, and enriched himself beyond his wildest dreams, but when is it enough power? When is it enough money? It’s worth noting that Walt does not stop producing meth after he surpasses his goal of $737-thousand.
When you’re on a mission to prove to the world how great, powerful, and manly you really are, there’s no logical stopping point, and you expand or die. You keep growing for the sake of growth because you have to, just like the cancer that resides inside Walt’s body, until it spreads too far, consumes all life, and kills its host from the inside. That’s what has happened to America. Breaking Bad might be the Moby Dick of this era, with Walter White as the new version of Captain Ahab, and Gray Matter, Walt’s long lost opportunity for wealth and power, as the illusive white whale, taunting him, luring him further into the void, and hastening his destruction.
The show is crafted with such care, and such attention to detail. The acting is impeccable, the cinematography unmatched, and the music completely absorbing. Bryan Cranston (Walter) and Aaron Paul (Jesse) are obviously the standout actors on the show, but the entire ensemble plays their parts with great nuance. Taken as a whole, Breaking Bad is a masterpiece unlike anything else on television, and it’s clearly more than just an entertaining story about a chemistry teacher turned drug lord, though it is that, too.
What it might lack in realism it more than makes up for in allegory. It’s telling us something about who we’ve become as a society. It’s warning us that next time, when we’re faced with a choice between taking a step back or doubling down on a misguided course of action, when we hear that voice inside our head, the lie we tell ourselves that rationalizes evil as long as we do it for a “good reason,” like protecting our families no matter the cost to others, we need to ignore that lie and take that step back. At some point the chain has to be broken and we need to put the greater good ahead of our own individual interests.
Walter White is more than just an isolated cautionary tale about drugs and violence. He represents something bigger. He symbolizes the attitude of America on the global stage and he wields its greatest weapon, capitalist-imperialism, to benefit himself, to give himself a sense of worth and pride, and he justifies his murderous greed by claiming he’s just doing it for the good of his family. That lie is the American way. Underneath that thinly veiled altruistic excuse is a naked desire to dominate others for the sake unfettered growth and power.
If you watch Breaking Bad carefully, you’ll notice that Walt is just itching for the chance to tell his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank that it’s actually him, the mild mannered chemistry teacher that everyone’s always overlooked and laughed at, who’s been behind the legendary blue meth all along. It’s that reckless desire for masculine pride that causes Walt’s empire to swell beyond control, and it’s what will cause his inevitable downfall, even if it’s everyone else who pays the price for his crimes.
There’s a brief but significant moment of note toward the end of the first episode. Walt is standing on a desolate road in the middle of the desert. Sirens are approaching and he believes he’s about to be caught. He pulls out a gun, puts it under his chin, and pulls the trigger. He hears the click, but no bullet is fired. The safety is on. He fumbles with the gun and accidentally fires a shot into the ground. After feeling the force of the gun in his hand he loses his nerve and goes on living. The sirens turn out to be firetrucks, not police, and Walt is relieved. In hindsight, knowing the monster he will later become, it’s hard not to think that the imaginary world of the show would have been a better place had the safety been off. But the great thing about art is that it can help us understand the real world. Walter White’s fictitious journey illuminates a very real and inconvenient truth about our society, and being deprived of his horrific transformation on Breaking Bad would be a major loss, not only culturally, but politically, because it demonstrates how deeply out of order our priorities are under capitalism.
:::Please see follow-up piece about Hank not being “the good guy”:::